Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Public School Squeeze

The Menomonee Falls School District just received the results of an audit that showed the district has higher staffing levels than districts of a similar size. Not surprisingly, the audit concluded that cutting staff would save money.

What doesn't appear to be a part of the audit was the affect of that higher staffing level on teaching and learning, and that's also an issue that wasn't discussed in any detail in the Journal-Sentinel article on the audit. The audit did find that the higher staffing levels in the Menomonee Falls district translated into smaller class sizes at schools in the district, but there was no apparent attempt by the auditors to assess the educational impact of those smaller class sizes.

Considering dozens of studies across the country have confirmed that smaller class sizes effectively increase student performance, it's safe to say the Menomonee Falls district benefits from its higher staffing levels.

Common sense also tells you that if a student can receive more one-on-one attention from a staff member, performance will be enhanced. And, as most teachers will tell you, perhaps the most difficult task of teaching is engaging students of highly varied ability and interest in the same course material -- so it follows that fewer students in the class improves the ability of teachers to use class time efficiently by reducing the amount of variance they need to juggle.

But the really interesting facet of the Menomonee Falls case is that the effectiveness of small class sizes isn't getting nearly the same amount of weight in policymaking than fiscal efficiency -- whether those small class sizes better student performance or not.

If that was the end of the story we could just chalk it up to a changing of the guard in terms of what is being emphasized these days. At one time the focus was on student performance, now amidst the fiscal conservative culture that has infiltrated many communities and -- for the most part -- the state as a whole, the emphasis is on cuts.

But there's more going on here. While districts across the state are getting pushed on one side by a fiscal conservative culture of cutbacks, they're also getting pushed on the other side by federal government regulations that demand high level student proficiency or else -- you guessed it -- they can expect even more funding cuts.

This year in Wisconsin, 34 schools face federal sanctions because they failed to progress at the rate required by the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law. Of course, Menomonee Falls and other suburban districts are not among them -- the vast majority are MPS.

But that's now -- the nature of NCLB is to continue to increase what's considered "adequate yearly progress" to the point of flawless proficiency. By 2013-2014, every public school in the country is expected to have 100% proficiency in reading and math.

Menomonee Falls -- like many suburban districts -- usually hits in the mid-80s for proficiency in high school and into the 90s in some categories for elementary school, which is quite good. But how likely is 100% proficiency across the board in just 8 years?

I suppose anything is possible. But I can't imagine increasing class sizes helps the district's chances.

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Side-Note: Only schools receiving Title 1 federal funding can face sanctions under NCLB as it's currently written. As of the 2005-2006 school year, 51% of Wisconsin's schools were sharing $152 million in Title 1 funding. District allocations for the 2006-2007 school year can be found here.

Three of the four elementary schools in the Menomonee Falls district currently receive Title 1 funding, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah yes - the class size argument. There is no doubt that students who are behind in basic skills in the younger grades benefit from a smaller class size. But after that, the data is mixed at best.

This is why SAGE flexibility is going to be tied to actual SAGE performance. While the teacher's union loves SAGE, because it requires more teachers, its results are not so clear as Seth would have us believe.

And as for the auditors looking for a perceived "value" in lower class sizes seems a little silly. Staffing levels are comparatively high with higher costs. If we now want auditors to look for the "value" of teacher-student ratios, then I suggest it is possible to have an audit every year to determine which individual teachers have the most "value."

This way, teachers that have too little value for the district can be let go and replaced with one of higher value.

Of course, the union would never stand for this process to get the best teachers in the classroom. But the audit would a great start.

July 13, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

I never say the audit should've considered student performance, I merely said it didn't. The basis for my argument is that the focus of these audits -- fiscal efficiency -- is dominating policymaking at the district level, as opposed to the emphasis on student performance in the past.

Here's the key paragraph where I set-up my argument: "But the really interesting facet of the Menomonee Falls case is that the effectiveness of small class sizes isn't getting nearly the same amount of weight in policymaking as fiscal efficiency -- whether those small class sizes better student performance or not."

My argument is that this focus on fiscal efficiency doesn't match up with the federal government's emphasis on student performance (in the form of standardized test scores). That's the squeeze.

The issue of class size is just an example I use. As I point out, it doesn't really matter for my argument whether or not smaller class sizes are better (I maintain they are, mixed research or not, and I imagine most teachers and students would agree), the point is that the issue isn't being given much weight in the policymaking that appears to be going on in Menomonee Falls and, I'm sure, other districts.

As the Falls superintendent said at the end of the JS article regarding changes that were made in the past compared to the changes the district is making now: "But now we're in a different time, and efficiency is of a greater importance."

It seems to me, with the federal government putting such high stakes on student performance, how the policies based upon fiscal efficiency affect the teaching and learning that goes on in the classroom should be getting significantly more attention.

July 13, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your argument that education decisions are being made predominantly on fiscal aspects is true. I just disagree that it is necessarly a bad thing.

It forces the education establishment to look at things in a more objective manner, something they do not always like to do.

The anchor of federal and state mandates can certainly cause problems for all local units of goverment. NCLB is a program to make schools meet federal standards. While I hate standardized tests as a way to determine the absolute competency of children, they can be useful as comparitive data bewteen schools, districts and states.

Is NCLB perfect? Nope. And your point on the bigger picture of fiscal vs. education perspectives is valid. The funding mechanisms for K12 don't seem to be changing any time soon, so the fiscal emphasis is here to stay.

July 13, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

I disagree that a fiscal emphasis is somehow more "objective" than an emphasis on desired services. Finances are a necessary means for obtaining a specified service or program. How much something costs should certainly be considered, but to give it primary influence stifles innovation and reduces the responsiveness of services to the public's needs and/or wants.

In my view, we should be looking at what services we need and want as a community first, and then narrowing down what we actually do based upon what makes sense financially. It seems lately governmental units have been forced to do the reverse, which is cut services in order to comply with a pre-set amount of money -- or, even worse, make arbitrary cuts simply because something is perceived to be out of step with what other similar units are doing (as is the case with Menomonee Falls). Of course, from year to year there are economic fluctuations that sometimes make arbitrary cuts necessary, but what Wisconsin is largely experiencing now goes far beyond isolated and temporary cuts in certain "down" years.

I also disagree with your statement that a fiscal emphasis is here to stay. That's a political question, not a funding mechanism one, and the political culture of a community or the public as a whole can and has turned relatively quickly historically speaking. After all, it was just a decade ago when services were given primary emphasis (note primary emphasis, not exclusive emphasis), as the Falls superintendent points out.

We happen to agree on the usefulness of standardized test scores. I don't have any problem with standardized tests, but I do take issue with linking them to high stakes such as funding or the ability to graduate high school. They're not nearly an accurate enough portrayal of student success to be used for such things.

But just as the fiscal emphasis in policymaking can be changed, so too can the emphasis on standardized tests in public schooling. Nixing, or at least re-writing, NCLB would be a good first step.

July 13, 2006  

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